EVANSTON, Ill. — Whenever Wisconsin arrives at Ryan Field, a place where the Badgers have not won since 1999, it’s a bit like stepping into an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
No matter how well either of the teams involved had been playing before the game, things never seem to go according to plan, with unexpected outcomes being the norm. What makes things even stranger is the sheer amount of red in Northwestern’s small stadium.
That’s how things went Saturday, especially for the defense, as the newly unranked Badgers came out on the wrong end of a 33-31 result, which weakened any UW bid for the Capital One or Outback Bowls on New Years Day.
“The game we played today is not Wisconsin football,” defensive end J.J. Watt said. “It’s not the way we’ve been playing all year. We really came out in the second half and tried to correct our mistakes, but it was too little too late for us.”
Wisconsin’s defense struggled throughout the day, just a week after it had limited Michigan to only 265 yards of total offense and just 71 rushing yards when the Wolverines had been averaging 208 yards per game on the ground.
One part of the Wildcats’ success on offense may have actually had to do with an NU coach on the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz. After having coached the Wisconsin defense until he was fired in 2007, Northwestern had a good idea of the usual tendencies of the Badgers’ ‘D.’
“They see that defense everyday with coach Hank here,” safety Jay Valai said. “But regardless of what they knew, we’ve got to play more technically sound than what we did.”
The Badgers also credited a lot of the knowledge of the Wildcats’ defense to the sheer intelligence of their personnel, since they are students at Northwestern University.
UW’s defensive leaders tried to change things up as the game progressed, but it did not seem to matter, as NU continued to call out and adjust to the Badgers’ coverage, whether they actually knew it or not.
“We had to make some adjustments and change our verbiage up,” safety Chris Maragos said. “You’re battling a team like Northwestern and they’re guys that aren’t flashy, but they’re in the right spot. They’re smart guys … and they executed well.”
The results were not pretty, as the Wisconsin defense had what linebacker Jaevery McFadden referred to as their worst half of the season in the first half of Saturday’s game. In that first half, UW gave up nearly 300 total yards of offense and 27 points as the Badgers headed to the locker room down 27-14.
They battled back in the second half, though, holding the Wildcats to just six points in the final 30 minutes of play. Still, they gave up 33 points — the most they have all season — and allowed Northwestern to pick up 437 yards of total offense, including a majority of that coming through an aerial attack led by Mike Kafka that UW just could not seem to stop.
One of NU’s best plays that worked all day was what Bielema calls a “bender route” as they find the hole between the linebacker and safety over the middle for a big gain.
“[It] was a big play for them,” Bielema said. “Anytime you can get so many yards without any time coming off the clock and they’re able to line back up and do it again, you could definitely see that our defensive guys were on their heels.”
Kafka finished 26-of-40 on the day for 326 yards and two touchdowns while only being sacked once in the game. He also did not turn the ball over for the Wildcats.
Perhaps the biggest throw of the day, though, came on a trick play. After Kafka got the ball to Zeke Markshausen on a lateral, the 5-foot-11 wide receiver found fellow receiver Sidney Stewart alone downfield for the 38-yard touchdown, which put the Wildcats up 24-14 midway through the second quarter.
“On the deep ball, when they did the double pass, I wasn’t expecting the double pass at all,” cornerback Devin Smith said. “I played over the top until I saw the quarterback threw it out. I thought [Markshausen] was taking off to try to run and make a play, but he stepped back and threw it.”